Family of Jesse Watlington, boy struck by lightning, traumatized again

11:36 AM, Dec 19, 2013   |    comments
Jesse Watlington
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Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- The move from Fort Myers was supposed to help them heal - the Watlingtons wanted to get away from the place where their 11-year-old son, Jesse, was killed by lightning during football practice.

Chuck and Alda Watlington left the destination up to their 15-year-old daughter, Carolina. She wanted to live near Disney World, so the family moved to Orlando in July - nine months after Jesse was killed on the field of Southwest Florida Christian Academy in Fort Myers. Chuck and Alda opened a furniture store in Orlando and Carolina enrolled in high school.

The family was doing well - business was good and Carolina spent her Friday nights at the theme park with friends - but something was missing.

"When we were living here in Fort Myers," Chuck Watlington said, "we were visiting the cemetery every single day."

The family decided to bring Jesse to Orlando, and scheduled a second burial for Wednesday. But when Chuck arrived at Fort Myers Memorial Gardens to exhume his son's body, what he saw shocked him.

As workers cleared away the dirt, they revealed a cracked burial vault lid that shattered when they tried to move it. Inside, the white casket was sitting in muddy water. Water had seeped into the casket as well, and workers had to drill holes so it could drain.

Chuck said the draining took almost three hours.

"So it was like my son was in the bottom of a lake somewhere chained to a concrete block," he said. "This is just too much for me to see."

Nothing about the scene at the cemetery Wednesday matched Chuck's memories of Jesse lying in a beautiful casket lined with white silk.

"He was wearing a nice little suit," Chuck said, "and he had a little teddy bear in the coffin."

Fort Myers Memorial Gardens has promised to replace Jesse's casket free of charge.

"Today's disinterment was conducted with the same dignity and respect we provide all families," general manager Donnell Sullivan said in a written statement. "When disinterment occurs, lifting and transportation proves difficult. When a replacement must take place, it is our policy, and the policy of most in our profession, to do so at no cost to the family."

Chuck said the replacement casket doesn't ease his pain or anger. Wounds he suffered with the loss of his young child, never fully healed, have been ripped wide open.

But burial vaults, which protect caskets from the weight of the earth above, come in different qualities. The Watlingtons chose a Monarch model, which isn't designed to keep out the elements.

"There is no liner within the concrete, so it is porous," said Shannon Mullins of Mullins Memorial Funeral Home & Cremation Service in Cape Coral. "It would allow over time, especially in our area where the water level is high, and the rainy season that we have had ...water to penetrate the pores in the concrete.

"It's unfortunate, and it's sad, and it just hurts," Mullins said, "and sometimes there's really no answer."

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